Published in KPBS On Air Magazine July 2004

Bruce Vilanch hasn’t been without a beard for 32 years. The acclaimed comic writer, a 4-year regular on the “New Hollywood Squares,” was forced to forego his signature grizzly face-fuzz to take on the role of Edna Turnblad in the national tour of Hairspray. He was, however, able to keep his wild-and-wooly hair, since he wears a variety of outrageous wigs throughout the show. Hairspray, the musical based on the 1988 John Waters cult film, has always featured a man playing the plus-size, large-hearted mother. In the film it was Divine; on Broadway, the gravel-voiced Harvey Fierstein. When asked if he was going to sing the role in a ‘Harvey voice,’ Vilanch quipped: ‘Not really, but I’m being coached by Bea Arthur.”

It’s no surprise that Vilanch has a clever comeback for any occasion. He’s heralded for having won the “Quadruple Crown” — that is, writing for all the major awards shows: The Oscars, Emmys, Tonys and Grammys. He’s garnered six Emmys himself, several for his work for Billy Crystal. He’s also written for Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, Lily Tomlin, Nathan Lane, Carol Burnett, Rosie O’Donnell and Shirley MacLaine, among others. But his favorite is Bette Midler, mainly because he’s been writing for her for 33 years.

Born in Paterson, New Jersey, Vilanch once worked as a feature writer for the Chicago Tribune. He currently pens a monthly column, “Notes from a Blond,” for The Advocate, the national gay and lesbian newsmagazine. His quirky world-view is featured in his book, “My Adventures in the Skin Trade and Other Essays” and his documentary, “Get Bruce!” He also performs a one-man show, a bio-comedy he’ll return to when his beard grows back. In bygone days, he wrote for The Brady Bunch, Donny and Marie and others. It’s been said that “Bruce has had his hands on more pilots than a staff physician at Continental Airlines.” Maybe he wrote that line himself. And there’s something else for which he’s noted, besides his collection of t-shirts (2000 and counting); Vilanch is tireless in his support and writing for gay or Jewish (or Jewish and gay) organizations. Over the past 10 months, when he’s not performing eight times a week on tour, he’s been working on a novel.

But his primary focus is Edna, an expansive character with whom he’s having a terrific time. When the road show opened in San Francisco in May, the Chronicle’s critic, Robert Hurwitt, was effusive about the production and Vilanch, with his “mountain of maternal care…. He fills the part as amply as he fills Edna’s barn-sized housedresses and flamboyant finery, assuming maternity without overstating it, hitting his punchlines with deadly accuracy and executing a slow-burn double-take with excruciating timing.”

The dynamic, irresistible Hairspray, spectacularly directed by our own Tony Award-winning Jack O’Brien, won eight Tonys in 2003, including Best Musical, Best Book (Marc O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan), Best Score (Marc Shaiman) and Best Costumes (William Ivey Long). The rock ‘n’ roll story is set in John Waters’ native Baltimore in 1962. Tracy Turnblad, a plus-sized girl with big hair and an even bigger heart, just wants to dance on the local ‘American Bandstand’-like TV show so she can beat the reigning dance-queen, win the hunk and end racial discrimination in her home town. Not much to ask. But with the unflagging support of her eccentric Mom (Vilanch) and Dad (Todd Susman) she scores on all counts. The show has a lot to say about appearance, self-esteem and, as Vilanch puts it, “accepting everyone — yourself and others.” It’s done for chubby girls what .Annie did for young ones. And for large-size men-playing-women, too.

The role requires of Vilanch “35 pounds of fat-suit, on top of my own God-given fat-suit.” And then there are the weighty wigs, the pantyhose and the high heels. “I have no center of gravity, ” says the 56-year old comic writer. “I feel like Godzilla tottering through Tokyo.” But this role, perhaps the most heartfelt in the show, is not just doing drag which, Vilanch explains, “is a parody of woman. Edna is a real woman. A really fat woman. But after an extreme makeover, she looks like Shelly Winters getting an Oscar. That glamorous. That emotional. The audience knows it’s a man from the outset, but they buy into it. That’s the whole idea; we have to accept everyone.”

Vilanch, like Fierstein before him, re-wrote many lines to suit his own personality and delivery. What he likes most about Edna is “she’s a lovable nutcase; fierce, wildly in love with her husband and crazy about her daughter. She herself has low self-esteem — that’s part of the reason the show connects with everyone; we all have self-esteem issues — but she transfers all the self-esteem to her child. The show is beautifully written. It’s a marvel. Audiences are carried along and carrying on by the end.”

The rockin’, rapid-fire, high-octane finale is the ultimate energizer. It’s called “You Can’t Stop the Beat.” But huffing to the finish-line, the cast fondly refers to it as “You Can’t Catch Your Breath.”

Hairspray runs from July 6-18 at the Civic Theatre, brought to us by Broadway/San Diego; 619-615-4178;


The dynamic, irresistible Hairspray was spectacularly directed by our own Tony Award-winning Jack O’Brien, artistic director of the Old Globe. Of Vilanch, O’Brien says, “He is a dream in this role! He’s the funniest-looking woman you’ve ever seen, but the audience buys into it and loves him.” O’Brien is thrilled to be bringing his show ‘home.’ “As with the Gipper,” he exudes, “I owe San Diego this one! And I LOVE this company; there’s the equal of anybody in New York.”

When Hairspray debuted in New York in 2002, it won eight Tonys, including Best Musical, Best Book (Marc O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan), Best Score (Marc Shaiman) and Best Costumes (William Ivey Long).

©2004 Patté Productions Inc.